War Memorials in Oceania

As first-time visitors to New Zealand and Australia, we were duly impressed by the many monuments and museums there commemorating the great wars of the 20th Century, especially the First and Second World Wars and the Boer War in South Africa.

Auckland War Memorial Museum
Auckland War Memorial Museum

The installations are meant to remind the viewer — and they certainly do — about the heartbreaking sacrifices the people of both countries made in those conflicts.

New Zealand and Australia were fiercely loyal to England, the Mother Country.  They rose without complaint to defend in war the interests of the British Empire.

Healthy, stalwart young men from these two remote Southern Hemisphere countries were wounded, sickened, maimed and killed in huge numbers, in battles in distant lands, very far from their homes.

Melbourne War Museum
Melbourne War Museum

In their loyalty to Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia are notably different from the more independent-minded United States of America.

Of course, men and boys from the United States made sacrifices every bit as noble and in far greater numbers.

But what is striking about New Zealand and Australia is that their casualties were so grievously disproportionate to their small populations.  This was especially true, so it seems, in the First World War.

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Front Entrance, Auckland War Memorial Museum

Every town or city of any substantial size in New Zealand and Australia has a war memorial, usually identifying by name the local boys and men who perished.

In both Auckland and Melbourne, the national governments have erected impressive, large war museums.

Both of them are located on prominent hilltops, surrounded by meticulously maintained parklands.

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“Let These Panels Never Be Filled”

The War Memorial Museum in Auckland has a vast center hall containing huge marble panels listing the names of the dead from each war in brass letters.  It is very poignant.

But even more poignant is another set of panels, left blank except for the words “Let These Panels Never Be Filled.”

IMG_7929Truly the most impressive of all the memorials we saw, though, was a special exhibit at the Museum of New Zealand called “Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War.”

It was a highlight of our visit to Wellington, the national capital, during a spell of dreary, wet weather.

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Wet Wellington

The exhibit in Wellington portrayed a tragic and ultimately failed effort to invade the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey).  The Turks had aligned with Germany during the First World War.  Troops from New Zealand and Australia were dispatched to help Britain gain a foothold in Turkey, on a peninsula called Gallipoli.

Eventually the New Zealanders and Australians were defeated and withdrew, but in the course of the campaign, which lasted almost a year, they suffered enormous casualties and extreme hardships.

All of this was brought to life quite vividly by the special exhibit in Wellington.

The core of the exhibit was a series of larger-than-life mannequins or statues of individual soldiers, created with the use of an advanced form of computer technology.

The mannequins were incredibly detailed and lifelike, with features such as whisker hairs and beads of sweat.  They were literally larger than life, roughly three or four times the size of the actual human beings on whom they were based.

Accompanying the larger-than-life mannequins were all sorts of written descriptions, photographs, letters from soldiers and their families and sound effects.

We felt very emotional by the time we finished the exhibit.  One could not help but be affected by the hardships these men suffered, in what was a lost cause.

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Tombstone in the graveyard in Queenstown, on the South Island of New Zealand – Imagine the heartache of the parents, who lost one son at Gallipoli in 1915, the other in France the next year

To add to the agony, this was only their first encounter of the First World War.  Many of the survivors were later sent to France to fight in the trenches there.  It was horrible.

One day at Gallipoli, the two sides agreed to a short ceasefire to bury their dead.  There were 500 corpses per acre.  The bodies were hastily buried in shallow graves.  During the short truce, soldiers from both sides mingled freely.  The stench of the decaying bodies was overwhelming.  After a few hours, the truce ended and the soldiers returned to their trenches and recommenced killing one another.

We are sure any visitor to this remarkable exhibit would have found it very moving.  You could not help but reflect on the brutality and to some extent the senselessness of war.  Everyone was quiet and pensive as we departed the museum that rainy day.

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